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Artikel von:
Hilary Tsui

Hilary Tsui arbeitet als unabhängige Kulturschaffende, Kuratorin und Autorin in Wien. Sie ist Gründerin und Programmdirektorin von city transit Asia-Europe (www.city-transit.org).

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Demolition of Star Ferry Pier

Urban redevelopment and conservation of local culture in Hong Kong

The purely economic-driven urban redevelopment in Hong Kong, which generally favours lucrative property developments, has increasingly been in conflict with heritage sites and local culture at large. The demolition of the Star Ferry pier in December 2006 has not only stirred up a major outcry among local communities, but also the general discussion of the lack of concern of cultural heritage conservation in the government’s urban redevelopment policy. This is especially apparent in its short-sighted, profit-oriented attitude, as well as its indifference towards Hong Kong people’s cultural heritage.

Using the demolition of the Star Ferry pier as a starting point, this essay reflects on the recent problematic urban redevelopment programmes in Hong Kong and their disruptive effects on local culture and collective memories. Among other provocative responses and protests, a series of artistic actions in public spaces, that took place as an alternative response to government’s decision, will be highlighted.

A ferry pier? Why bother?

Being confronted with the need to become key players inside the world city league, major cities worldwide, especially post-industrial cities and cities in Southeast Asia have been constantly re-inventing themselves to adapt to the international environments and changes. Unlike their European counterparts, whose urban development focus is more about regeneration rather than redevelopment, urban planning in these Asian cities, including Hong Kong, often takes on a more radical approach: old buildings and districts simply being pulled down overnight; gigantic shopping plazas replacing historical neighbourhoods; even a completely new urban landscape can be created from scratch depending on what flashy projects are being planned to compete with their international or regional counterparts.

So, demolition and disappearance of cultural heritage is nothing new in Hong Kong. And even the ‘hutongs’, the narrow alleyways that run around the city centre of Beijing since the Ming Dynasty, have been scrapped without particular emotions, why is the demolition of a mere ferry pier and its clock tower in Hong Kong worth our attention?

Before the British took over and developed it to be a world financial centre, Hong Kong was simply a set of small villages with discernable tribal heritage. With its merely 155 years of (colonial) history, the region does not have specific national or historical sites that would fit in the UNESCO’s cultural heritage list, which implicitly operates on a national level. 1 Instead, heritage conservation in Hong Kong is very much about keeping its everyday culture and the collective memories of the citizen intact.

So, the Star Ferry pier and clock tower, built in 1958 and one of the few remaining streamlined modern public buildings in Hong Kong carries a part of the history of Hong Kong, its distinctive, practical local culture, especially the local grassroots culture and the collective memories of millions of Hong Kong citizens. Especially, because it was a site of protests and direct cause for the Hong Kong 1966 Riots, a 3 night protests triggered off by the British colonial government’s decision to increase the Star Ferry fare by 25 percent.

Hong Kong’s cultural identity

The search of Hong Kong cultural identity has been a difficult and intricate issue long before the handover in 1997. Though Hong Kong is a “postcolonial” site it does not fit into any conventional definition of the postcolonial, as it was neither an independent national state before British rule nor did it gain its independence after the handover. Today, it is a self-administrated region, yet situated inside and belonging to China and governed according to the principle of “one country, two systems”. Therefore, Hong Kong’s struggle with its cultural identity and its need to position and represent itself to the international stage is indeed ideologically a challenging task and very contradictory in its current practice. The issue of conserving local cultural heritage in Hong Kong, unlike other Asian countries, takes on another level of meaning and requires another dimension of investigation.

Victoria Harbour Reclamation
Victoria Harbour, which is literally the ‘origin’ of Hong Kong and the reason why the city thrives, has undergone three phases of reclamation since the government launched the Central and Wan Chai reclamation projects in the 1990s. Along both sides of the waterfront are the central business districts which motivates much of this work, where some of the highest land prices in the city, and the world, are located.
The third phase of Central reclamation involved reclaiming 16 hectares of land along the harbour for the Airport Express train station, the west section of the proposed North Island Line, the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, new Star Ferry piers, new roads, and other business facilities, with the estimated cost of approximately Euro 330,000. With the passing of the proposal in 2002, the fate of the Star Ferry pier (demolished in December 2006) and Queen’s pier (closed for demolition in April 2007) was inevitable.
This is, however, not the first time that a former ferry pier was closed down due to reclamation. Blake’s Pier was demolished in the early 1990s to make way for the first phase of the Central reclamation.2 The proposal of the third phase reclamation and the decision to demolish these piers triggered strong public sentiments and protests among the local community.

Public Reaction

On the last day of ferry service on the 11th November 2006, 15,000 visitors came to take a last glimpse of the pier and take their last rides3 Before the demolition, several political parties and numerous community groups jointly urged the public to fight for the preservation of the pier; activists launched several high-profile protests; In-Media, an online magazine run by activists, promoted the issue via their website; the SEE (Society/Environment/Economy) network, which campaigns for conservation and sustainable urban development in Hong Kong, organised activities and forums to mediate the issue to the general public; and under the initiative and direction of Kith Tsang, educator and artist, a group of young people occupied the public space near the pier and staged art performances in response to government’s decision.

Artistic acts in public space

Art in public space is not often practiced in Hong Kong, especially as a means to mediate social and political issues. And this series of art interventions were the first of their kind in the Hong Kong art scene. The group of artists consistently performed every Sunday from 3-5 p.m. from August 2006 to even after the demolition. The protagonists included, among others, performance artist Leung Po Shan and a group of young artists who were originally participants of summer workshop on ‘art in public space’ run by Kith Tsang. The actions were launched to inform the larger public about the demolition and to awaken the younger generation’s conception of public space.

According to Tsang, art in public space is an expressive and effective way to response to what is happening in our city, especially for those who do not have means to voice their opinions in the mass media. Tsang suggests that the government adopted very sophisticated methods to push forward the Central reclamation plan, alienating public participation and denying their rights to participate in the urban planning process.

As an activist himself, Tsang believes that cultural preservation is not only about hardware, but also about human life. The government should provide support and should work for the betterment of people. The development model of urban renewal being adopted in Hong Kong now tends to destroy social networks, especially those of the elderly. For example, one of the methods the government uses to resettle habitants is to pay them according to the market price of their properties. This, of course, is a great disadvantage for the elderly living in older buildings which have not been renovated in the last several decades and so have a very low market value.

Bulldozing sites for developers

The Star Ferry pier demolition is just one of many local cultural sites that have been, or are currently, under demolition. Others worth noting are:

- Lee Tung Street (already under redevelopment) - also known as Wedding Card Street in the local community, as it is famous for selling and printing wedding cards, name cards and traditional Chinese calendars. The neighbourhood was scrapped for new residential towers and shopping malls. The community group fought for 3 years against the demolition.

- Queen’s pier (closed down for demolition in April 2007) – is the second pier in Hong Kong, purposefully built in 1953-54 as a ceremonial and public pier. It was the landing place for many former Hong Kong Governors, as well as prominent officials and figures within and outside Hong Kong upon their arrival in and departure. 4 Activists, conservationists and community groups campaigned to save Queen's Pier, including, sit-in, protests and hunger strikes in the last months.

- Wan Chai Market (demolition was scheduled to start early 2008) – was built in 1937, one of the last markets with Streamline Moderne architecture, the site will be redeveloped into a luxury residential-commercial complex. 5

- Central Police Station (ceased operation in December 2005) and Victoria Prison, which were built adjacent to each other, are the declared monuments of Hong Kong. They are one of the few remaining colonial heritages in Hong Kong. The oldest part within the police station was built in 1864. 6 Yet, real estate developers have their eyes on the units that are ceased to operate.

The Road Ahead

While the government has been bulldozing valuable sites that have been an integral part of Hong Kong’s everyday culture over the past decades, it has also been investing extravagantly on brand new “heritage” attractions for the lucrative tourist industry. One major “heritage”/ tourism project is the “Ngong Ping 360” which consists of the Ngong Ping Skyrail and the Ngong Ping Village.
Ngong Ping Skyrail is a 5.7 km long gondola linking Ngong Ping, where the giant Buddha and Po Lin Monastery are located, and Tung Chung, the area nearest to Hong Kong’s airport. The Ngong Ping Village is built next to the Skyrail Terminal in traditional Chinese architectural design and topped with key attractions from Chinese cultural elements and international chain stores.
In the search of a new image after the British rule, and especially for the income-generating tourist industry, the tourism board decided to remake itself as “Asia’s World City” since 2001. It has suddenly decided to exploit, in a stereotypical fashion, its roots in Chinese culture and heritage. Hong Kong Disneyland, the Ngong Ping 360” and other touristy add-ons (including Bruce Lee's sculpture in the Avenue of Stars) on the waterfront of the shrinking Victoria Harbour, show the government’s prime concern is income-generation, without genuine consideration of local cultural context or quality of life.

The problematic urban redevelopment in Hong Kong goes hand in hand with its clumsy imaging strategies: shopping malls are still mushrooming in Hong Kong even though there is little room or genuine need for them; more “spectacular” tourist experiences are constructed and endless clichéd cultural representations are still being generated. Without a genuine understanding and respect for its local culture, the current development model of the Hong Kong government will most likely create another generic megalopolis, taking its place alongside many other Chinese cities, and most certainly stifling its ambition to become “Asia’s World City”.

In der Printversion ist der Text in deutscher Übersetzung.

1) See Convention Articles: UNESCO World Heritage Convention adopted in 1972: http://whc.unesco.org/?cid=175
2) Keith Wallis, The Standard, Harbour reclamation plans gathering pace, July 31, 2000
3) South China Morning Post, Dec 17, 2006
4) Peter Cha Sui-San for the HK Government, EIA: A survey report of Historical Buildings and Structures within the Project Area of the Central Reclamation Phase III, February 2001: A Historical and Architectural Appraisal of Queen’s Pier, Central (Annex B, P.3)
5) Una So & Stephanie Tong, The Standard, Hopes Raised for Historic Market, 04 August, 2007 http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=2&art_id=50548&sid=14791822&con_type=1&d_str=20070804&sear_year=2007
6) Under: Declared Monuments in Hong Kong, http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/Monument/en/monuments_53.php